BYSteve Jones, USA TODAY Published 6:57 p.m. ET March 18, 2017 | Updated 11:36 a.m. ET March 19, 2017

See why he was called "The Father of Rock 'n' Roll." USA TODAY

March 18, 2017: Chuck Berry, one of the architects of rock and roll, has died at age 90. The man behind such classics as "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Johnny B. Goode" influenced countless artists, ranging from the Beatles to Emmylou Harris.(Photo: Walter Bieri, EPA)


Every time you see a rocker strutting the stage, slinging their guitar around and cutting loose with killer riffs, Chuck Berry’s musical DNA is at work.

Berry, who died Saturday at 90 according to the St. Charles County Missouri police department, created the rock star blueprint more than 50 years ago and generations later, there’s still nobody who can touch the original. It’s no wonder that when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland inducted its inaugural members in 1986, the Brown Eyed Handsome Man was at the head of the class.

From the time Berry first hit the scene with Maybellene in 1955, he defined the sound, the swagger, the style of a rock and roll star. He was the show. And to this day, guitarists pay homage banging out his wicked licks and imitating his signature duck walk.

He blew the fuse in many a jukebox with songs like School Day that spoke directly to the teens that embraced him: “Soon as three o’clock rolls around/you finally lay your burden down/Close up your books, get out of your seat/Down the halls and into the street.” They may not have wanted to learn the Golden Rule from mean-looking teachers, but “tight dresses and lipstick,” and Cadillacs “doin’ about ninety-five” sure struck their fancy.

Berry was so energetic, charismatic and unique that he rendered moot the prevailing racial barriers of the 1950s that kept most African American musicians out of the mainstream. He had a knack for gauging what his audience liked and then giving it to them. His witty, libidinous lyrics spoke of girls, motorin’, and footloose fun. “If you get too close, you know I’m gone like a cool breeze,” he crooned on You Can’t Catch Me. Who can’t empathize with him on No Particular Place to Go, when his plans for a little moonlight romance are thwarted by a balky seat belt or his lament about life’s pressures on Too Much Monkey Business?

His virile concoction of country hillbilly guitar licks and spirited R&B was the high-test that fueled the rock and roll engine. Even being locked up in 1962-1963 couldn’t keep his fire from spreading on both sides of the Atlantic. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys and others gained traction during that time by covering Berry songs. Even Elvis dipped into his catalog. More than 75 different artists have done Berry songs. Johnny B. Goode alone has seen at least two dozen versions.

Berry and his music were built to last. Scandals couldn’t keep him down. Neither could passing fads or changing tastes. His salacious euphemisms and rebellious spirit still resonate.

Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born in St. Louis in 1926. He started taking guitar lessons after he wowed his peers at a high school talent show singing Jay McShann’s big band song Confessin’ the Blues. It was an audacious choice given the setting, but it would foreshadow choices he’d make as his career blossomed. By 1952, he was playing in a band that played everything from blues to country. He soon joined Sir John’s Trio, which was led by pianist Johnnie Johnson, who’d become a longtime collaborator. He eventually became the band’s leader.

In 1955, he went to Chicago where he befriended bluesman Muddy Waters. Waters introduced him to Leonard Chess of Chess Records. His homemade demo included some blues songs, but it was the countrified, up-tempo R&B number Ida May, which would later become Maybellene, that sealed the deal. When the song came out that summer, it hit No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 5 on the pop charts.

Over the next five years, Berry toured extensively and was a hit machine rattling off winners like Wee Wee Hours, Thirty Days (To Come Back Home), Roll Over Beethoven, Rock and Roll Music, Sweet Little Sixteen, and of course, Johnny B. Goode. Bolstering his crossover appeal was influential New York DJ Alan Freed, who booked Berry for his rock and roll stage extravaganzas and appearances in Freed-produced movies Rock, Rock, Rock, Mr. Rock and Roll, and Go Johnny Go.

But Berry’s ambitions went beyond just being a star. He invested heavily in real estate in the St. Louis area and in 1958, he opened the racially-integrated Club Bandstand in what was then a segregated area of the city. A year later, he hired a young woman that he’d met on tour in El Paso, Texas, to work at the club's hat check. She was fired after two weeks, but after working as a prostitute at a local hotel for several nights, she called her hometown police in Yuma, Ariz., to help get her home.

Berry wound up being charged with violating the Mann Act — transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. He was found guilty, but the verdict was overturned because the judge made racist remarks. He was convicted again in 1961 and sentenced to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine. He served two years.

Fortunately for him, the emerging white rock bands were keeping his music alive and he came back blazing with another run of hits including Nadine, Little Marie, Promised Land and No Particular Place to Go. He toured Britain and in 1964 appeared on The T.A.M.I. (Teen-Age Music International) Show with the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, James Brown and the Supremes. A film version of the concert was later released.

In this Oct. 17, 1986 file photo, Chuck Berry performs during a concert celebration for his 60th birthday at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, Mo. (Photo: James A. Finley, AP)

Over the next eight years, the stream of hits dried up, but he found a new audience on the blues and hippie festival circuit. In 1972, he scored his last hit — and only No. 1 pop tune — the racy novelty song, My Ding-a-Ling, which he’d recorded 14 years earlier as My Tambourine. Still, he never really wanted for festival work.

He played himself in 1978 Freed biopic American Hot Wax and in 1979, he played at the White House at President Jimmy Carter’s request. A month later, he was jailed for five months for income tax evasion. Also that year, he released Rock It, his last studio album.

The 1980s saw Berry much lauded for his body of work. When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Keith Richards, declared, “It’s hard for me to induct Chuck Berry, because I lifted every lick he ever played.”

Berry inspired many such quotes during his career. Jerry Lee Lewis, his one-time rival who famously set fire to a piano on stage when Berry was set to close a show, said years later, “(My mama) said, ’You and Elvis are pretty good, but you’re no Chuck Berry.”

Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers declared that Berry is “a musical scientist who discovered a cure for the blues.”

John Lennon was even more to the point: “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ’Chuck Berry.' "


The 'father of Rock n' Roll' Chuck Berry has died at age 90. Some of the best musicians in the world react on social media about his influence. USA TODAY

But it wasn’t all high praise for Berry especially in more recent years. Filmmaker Taylor Hackford’s 1986 concert/documentary Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll (Richards served as musical director) showed all the characteristics that made him “The Father of Rock and Roll,” but it also showed another side — a testy, unpredictable cheapskate.

The warts and all portrayal of a musician more interested in money than art, was in keeping with a reputation he developed in later years of saving a buck by using local musicians instead of paying a touring band. The result was hit-and-miss live performances.

He also faced more legal problems. In 1990, he settled a class action suit involving 59 women who complained that he’d installed a video camera in the women's bathroom at two of his restaurants in St. Louis. In 2000, Berry was sued by longtime pianist Johnnie Johnson, who sought royalties and credit he thought he was owed for songs they performed together. The suit was later dismissed, and Berry paid tribute to Johnson — the man who helped launch his career — when he died at age 80 in 2005. Johnson, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a sideman in 2001, was known as the king of the boogie-woogie piano.

Despite his ups-and-downs, Berry’s music never seems to go away. A four-disc, 103-song boxed set Johnny B. Goode: His Complete ’50s Chess Recordings was released in 2008 just ahead of his signature song’s 50th anniversary in 2009. Republican presidential candidate John McCain used the song in his 2008 primary campaign, until Berry made it clear that he favored Democrat Barack Obama.

Up until a few years ago, Berry played once a month at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis.

His first studio album in nearly 38 years, titled Chuck, is scheduled for release sometime this year, according to his web site, The backing band includes two of his children, Charles Berry Jr. (guitar) and Ingrid Berry (harmonica).

Berry announced the new album on Oct. 18, his 90th birthday. He said the album is dedicated to Themetta Berry, his wife of 68 years.

"This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy," Berry said in a media release. "My darlin' I'm growing old! I've worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!"

Berry's son, Charles Berry Jr., described the new music as covering a wide spectrum from hard-driving "rockers to soulful, thoughtful time capsules of a life's work."

"What an honor to be part of this new music," Charles Berry Jr. said. "The St. Louis band, or as dad called us 'The Blueberry Hill Band,' fell right into the groove and followed his lead."

Berry has left a body of work that will have lasting appeal. He will be remembered as long as there are musicians smart enough to dig deep into the source of their inspiration. With his passing, Beethoven will now really have to roll over and tell Tchaikovsky the news — that they’ve got a new neighbor in music heaven.

Longtime USA TODAY music critic Steve Jones died in 2013.

Contributing: Carly Mallenbaum, Alison Maxwell

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Chuck Berry, whose three-chord style of guitar-playing inspired thousands of guitarists for more than six decades, has died at age 90.  Chuck Berry Music, Inc.Fullscreen Berry as a 3-year-old in 1929 in his hometown of St. Louis. The image was included in the exhibit 'Roll Over Beethoven: The Life and Music of Chuck Berry' at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and MuseumFullscreen A Chuck Berry concert poster, circa 1953, from 2012's 'Roll Over Beethoven: The Life and Music of Chuck Berry' at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and MuseumFullscreen Berry in a scene from his 1964 performance in 'The T.A.M.I. Show.'  Dick Clark ProductionsFullscreen Berry in 'American Hot Wax.' The 1978 movie was based on the career of disc jockey Alan Freed, who introduced rock 'n' roll music to a mass audience in the U.S. in the 1950s.  The Kobal CollectionFullscreen Berry performs his trademark "duck walk" as he plays his guitar in April 1980. The move has been copied by generations of guitarists and Berry used the move throughout his career.  APFullscreen Berry has a laugh with fellow guitarist Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones at New York's Studio 54 in February 1980. Richards has long regarded Berry as one of his musical idols.  Vann, APFullscreen Berry raises a fist as he receives a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 26th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 28, 1984. At right is the late guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Doug Pizac, APFullscreen Berry and fellow rock 'n' roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis embrace at a reception in January 1986 at which they were among the first 10 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  G. Paul Burnett, APFullscreen Keith Richards, left, Neil Young and Berry perform together at the finale of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1986.  Frankie Ziths, APFullscreen Berry does a split while filming a scene from the 1987 documentary 'Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll.' The movie captures a concert at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis to mark Berry's 60th birthday, and also discusses his life and career.  Universal StudiosFullscreen Berry and Keith Richards celebrate the conclusion of the concert filmed for 'Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll.' Richards, the concert's music director, is shown frequently frustrated by Berry wanting to change a song's sound during rehearsals.  Universal StudiosFullscreen Berry performs with longtime piano sideman and friend Johnny Johnson in 'Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll.' Johnson sued Berry in 2000 claiming that he had co-written more than 50 songs with him. The suit was dismissed by a court judge.  Universal PicturesFullscreen Berry, center, participates in the groundbreaking for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in June 1993.  Piet Van Lier, Associated PressFullscreen Bruce Springsteen and Berry laugh as they perform Berry's hit 'Johnny B. Goode' at the Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in September 1995. Berry opened the show.  Mark Duncan, APFullscreen Berry is congratulated by President Clinton during a reception at the White House in December 2000 for the Kennedy Center Honorees.  Susan Walsh, APFullscreen Berry received his Kennedy Center honor along with, clockwise from lower left, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Placido Domingo, Angela Lansbury and Clint Eastwood.  Neshan H. Naltchayan, AFPFullscreen Berry attended the Kennedy Center Honors with his wife Themetta.  Stephen J. Boitano, APFullscreen Berry performs for a hometown crowd in downtown St. Louis.  David Preston, St. Louis Convention and Visitors CommissionFullscreen Berry performs during the Legends of Rock 'n' Roll concert in Zurich in July 2000.  Franco Greco, Keystone via APFullscreen Berry wrapped up a European tour in November 2007 with a performance in Burgos, Spain.  Israel Lopez Murillo, APFullscreen Berry throws out a ceremonial first pitch before a game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs in July 2011 in St. Louis.  Tom Gannam, APFullscreen Berry performs a New Year's Day show in Chicago in 2011.  Timothy Hiatt, Getty ImagesFullscreen Berry collapsed while performing at the New Year's Day show and was briefly hospitalized with exhaustion.  Timothy Hiatt, Getty ImagesFullscreen A bronze statue of Berry was dedicated in July 2011 in University City, Mo. The statue is near Blueberry Hill, the University City club where Berry performed regularly.  Jeff Roberson, APFullscreen Berry attended the statue's dedication.  Jeff Roberson, APFullscreen Chuck Berry performs during the 2012 Awards for Lyrics of Literary Excellence at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum on Feb. 26, 2012, in Boston.  Marc Andrew Deley, Getty ImagesFullscreen Chuck Berry thanks the crowd with his wife Themetta after receiving the 17th American Music Master award on Oct. 27, 2012, at the State Theater in Cleveland.  Joshua Gunter, APFullscreen Chuck Berry performing on April 15, 2013, in Montevideo, Uruguay.  Pablo Porciuncula, AFP/Getty ImagesFullscreenReplay1 of 292 of 293 of 294 of 295 of 296 of 297 of 298 of 299 of 2910 of 2911 of 2912 of 2913 of 2914 of 2915 of 2916 of 2917 of 2918 of 2919 of 2920 of 2921 of 2922 of 2923 of 2924 of 2925 of 2926 of 2927 of 2928 of 2929 of 29AutoplayShow ThumbnailsShow CaptionsCONNECTTWEETLINKEDIN 1 COMMENTEMAILMORERead or Share this story: